PERE UBU

OVERVIEW:
Pere Ubu is a slippery band – a hard band to sum up quickly or slot into a definable genre. They have a big catalog with lots of stylistic diversity, the only constant being front-man David Thomas. He’s sort of the Ebert to Mark E. Smith’s Siskel, and the band shares a lot in common with The Fall (especially their longevity and ability to confuse rock critics and frighten off potential fans with uninviting, vast catalogs). They aren’t really a punk band, but they exhibit the punk spirit to a greater degree than most classic punk bands! Save for an unfortunate “pop” excursion in the early 90’s, they are one of the most singular and uncompromising bands in rock history. And they can also be a whole lot of fun.

THE ALBUMS:

The Modern Dance *
Dub Housing
New Picnic Time
The Art Of Walking
390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo (Live)
Song Of The Bailing Man *
Terminal Tower  *
The Sound Of The Sand (David Thomas Solo)
Variations On A Theme (David Thomas Solo) *
More Places Forever (David Thomas Solo)
Monster Walks The Winter Lake (David Thomas Solo)
Blame The Messenger (David Thomas Solo) *
The Tenement Year
One Man Drives While The Other Man Screams (Live)
Cloudland
Worlds In Collision
Story Of My Life
Ray Gun Suitcase
Pennsylvania
St. Arkansas
Why I Hate Women
Surf’s Up! (David Thomas Solo)
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THE MODERN DANCE (1978)

A

These guys never made a better record than their debut. They got weirder, and tighter, and poppier – and there was still a lot of wonderful material to come. But this record has their most perfect combination of pop smarts, garage-y sloppiness, wacky experimentation, and rhythmic oddities – it’s also got novelty on it’s side, and youthful energy. These are all qualities that would show up on subsequent albums, but the band would never again find the nearly perfect combination of those elements as represented by this mostly awesome platter. You’d be hard pressed to locate a better three song opening run on ANY record! “Non-Alignment Pact” kicks off the proceedings, and it’s really the all-time great Ubu rocker. It sounds like a catchy pop-punk song, with rocking riffs and garage rock percussion – but it also sounds completely bizarre! The strangeness derives in part from David Thomas’ insane paranoid adenoidal delivery, the most obvious off-putting feature in the band – but there’s also a “perfect” sloppiness that borrows a bit from Beefheart. The tune’s pub-rock-on-Mars chorus is an absolute classic. Next comes the groovy title track, driven by an electric piano and punctuated by shouts of “Madre Madre!” The guitar parts on that song make me want to say, “Those are some bad-ass and very catchy post-punk guitar lines!” “Laughing” follows the first two poppier songs, and it’s an expertly executed slow build of tension that eventually bursts into a simple pop chorus. The break into the drum beat and the melody, where Thomas sings “My Medicine!” — well that’s just brilliant, people. The rest of the album doesn’t measure up to the first three tracks – but there are still some absolute winners. The closer “Humor Me” is probably the next best tune, with more Ubur catchy funk-punk guitar parts and a great shouted vocal hook (“It’s Just A Joke, Mon!”). The big problem spot here would lead to a general problem in the band’s catalog – head-up-their-own-assery!  “Sentimental Journey” is 6 minutes of boring nonsense – there are times when I can convince myself that the noise-making and bottle breaking and lack of actual song-writing sounds cool and “avant” and represents a welcome dark breather from the fun songs. But most of the time that track just sounds like crap. Everything else is swell though, and this is the obvious place to start with the band.

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DUB HOUSING (1978)

B+

Many fans and critics of this group often consider this one to be their masterpiece, but I think it’s a step down from the debut. It’s certainly a more CONSISTENT work, and it creates a specific and darkly off-kilter mood throughout. The whole thing sounds like drunkard’s nightmare – a haphazard boozy ramble through back alleys and shadow places. There are no real major highlights for me on this one – whereas tunes like “Non-Alignment Pact” and “Humor Me” peak up sharply above the rest of the debut, this one is more of a conceptual piece (not a concept album, mind you).  It’s harder to pick apart the individual songs –  everything is a bit more subtle. The only true stand alone classic is the sea-chanty from post-punk hell “Caligari’s Mirror.” That song continues some of the dynamic ideas previously presented with “Laughing,” but it’s poppier and more hilarious. “On The Surface” is a another oddball tune in the vein of “The Modern Dance,” and its quirky keyboard riff is probably the catchiest musical phrase on the record. Thankfully, there is no “Sentimental Journey”  here – even the Kraut-rocky instrumentals sound musical and atmospheric and thought-through (“Thriller,” “Blow Daddy-O'”). The funniest Pere Ubu number to date arrives in the form of “Ubu Dance Party,” where our drunkard’s nightmare takes him to a warped surf party and he proceeds to freak out. This is mostly fun and unbelievably bizarre stuff – the band certainly goes for more expansive and wacky material than your average post-punkers. Were it not for the sloppiness and garage-y playing, they would be closer to art rock and R.I.O. and even prog!  Anyway, this is an essential part of their catalog, but it just never hit me square between the eyes like did the debut. It’s a respectable record, and some people might love it death – I just like it a lot.

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NEW PICNIC TIME (1979)

C+

Whoops! The third album from the “classic” Pere Ubu album does not believe in hooks. It does not believe that songs should be memorable or catchy. I think it believes in Beefheart. But Beefheart had a strong central PERSONALITY that rooted even his oddest excursions. Most of this album just floats by – very experimental and often quite interesting to hear, but mostly uneventful and forgettable. The sound on here is very similar to the previous album, but this time the atmosphere is confusingly uninviting and there’s no flow to anything. There’s a lot of random noisemaking and sometimes you just want some old-school Ubu garage rock to kick in! The album starts off with it’s two best tracks, the only two that DO allow for some hookier rocking elements. Opener “The Fabulous Sequel” starts things off with one of the most bizarre and hilarious opening lines in rock history: “It’s Me Again! Hey – Hey – Hey – It’s ME Again!” And the band chugs along in complete Magic Band fashion with a great bluesy primitive guitar riff riding atop a funny simple pop groove. But everything sounds completely fucked up. And Thomas just goes off like a maniac. It’s sweet stuff! The second track is even better: “49 Guitars & One Girl,” which is the closest thing here to a classic Ubu song. It’s got a funny, catchy Thomas vocal hook (“It was a sound he heard…what a funny thing to feel!”) and creative punky guitar melodies. After these two winners, it’s pretty much all downhill. The third track is a 6 minute noise-fest, even more minimalist than “Sentimental Journey,” and probably even more boring. During the course of the uneventful track, Thomas tells us that there’s a “fly in the ointment” and frantically implores us not to “rock the boat,” but he should be shouting: “Don’t skip the track, don’t skip the track!” Because this shit is BORING. “Small Was Fast” and “One Less Worry” are both Beefheart-y guitar groove songs with chanted crazy vocals, but neither are as good as the first two tracks. They seem underwritten, though of course the band was clearly pushing for artsy minimalism on this outing and the next one. “Make Hay” sounds like Pod-era Ween! Very weird track – not sure what to say about it. The album closer “Kingdom Come” is probably the best thing after the opening two-fer. It has an actual vocal hook – one of the only ones on the entire record! But then, this band wasn’t really about melodies at this point anyway. I don’t understand this album – it feels like a mess, and does absolutely nothing for me. But I don’t hate it. These guys were way too unique and forward-thinking for that at this point. But this is an unfriendly record and not really different enough from the first two to warrant special attention. Stick with “Dance” and “Dub,” and move to this album only if you’re clamoring for more from this early line-up.

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THE ART WALKING (1980)

B-

Original guitarist Tom Herman was out, and in came former Red Krayola mastermind Mayo Thompson. This initiates a series of David Thompson projects that utilize the talents of fabulous art rockers from the pre-punk era. It proves a theory I have about Pere Ubu – they are one of the only REAL first generation “punk” bands due to their total refusal to adhere to norms and forms. I mean – a punk rocker cavorting with dinosaurs?! Anyway, half of this album takes the minimalist noise-making deconstruction to an even FURTHER extreme, and predictably that half is not very enjoyable. There’s always an off-kilter oddness, coupled with Thomas’ sloppily endearing weirdo personality, that grounds even the most far-flung of this band’s experiments. But you’d have to find me in a VERY forgiving mood to be able to accept the noodling crap swimming around in “songs” like “Arabia,” “Young Miles In The Basement,” and “Lost In Art.” The first is 5 minutes of crappy and seemingly random organ lines on top of a minimalist rhythm groove. There’s synth and other noises mixed in – and a sort of fractured circus music vibe – but the track just doesn’t go anywhere or create any sort of exciting atmosphere. It’s a big zero. “Young Miles” is another minimalist noise experiment with horns and synths and Thomas moaning “There’s no place like home.” It’s pretty boring stuff. “Lost in Art” is the third stupid experiment, and probably the worst. Thomas sounds like a drunkard yelling random crap in the subway, and in between his wails someone (Thomas?) bangs on a snare drum. There are some other background noises (a snoring synth, some jazzy keyboard doodling and organ pads)…but it all sucks! The only redeeming factor in the track is a humorous moment at the end when Thomas starts asking for all the fading silly noise to “come back, I didn’t mean it, where’s everybody going?” Luckily, the rest of this album is a step UP from “New Picnic.” Opener “Go” is an Ubu classic  with a hilarious vocal performance and a killer Beefheart-ian guitar riff. “Rhapsody in Pink” is an experiment that actually WORKS – it’s funny and weird and the spoken words are quite memorable. “Misery Goats” takes the band back to their earlier bouncy weirdo pop style – great bass tone on that one! “Birdies” is a fun “rocker” with a neat guitar riff and some nutty vocal acrobatic shouting from Thomas. “Horses” is the poppiest thing on here – it’s got a Mayo Thompson lead vocal, and the song dates back to his early 70s solo album. It’s a nice change of pace for the record, with a cool guitar hook. Overall, this ain’t even close to peak Ubu – but it’s got some winners, and it’s not WORSE than the previous album even though that seems to be the general consensus. There’s actually more pop music at play here – it’s just that this time out the minimalist noise experimentation (when it does rear it’s ugly head) is mostly annoying and pointless.

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390 DEGREES OF SIMULATED STEREO (Live Album)   (1981)

(no grade)

This is an early live record with mostly horrible sound quality. The material is all “Terminal Tower” and “The Modern Dance,” and I can’t say anything struck me as more useful than the recorded versions. The album opens with a run of pretty straight renditions, but later on there are some cool versions of “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Sentimental Journey,” and “Heart Of Darkness.” All those songs invite live interpretation, as they’re so abstract. But this just sounds like a bootleg and I wish there was a better document of this early version of the band (there very well may BE one, but this is the most official one I read about).

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SONG OF THE BAILING MAN (1982)

B+

Is this even the same band!!? After the disappointing minimalist messiness of the previous two records, Ubu traded out drummers and put together a totally different kind of album that more than points the way to Thomas’ imminent solo work. Instead of diffuse scattered noise-making and undefinable non-songs, this record is full of tight arrangements, forceful jazzy drumming, some actual melodies, and a shit-ton of bouncy goofy energy. It’s a highly entertaining listen – and my favorite record of theirs since “The Modern Dance!” That’s right – better than “Dub Housing,” and you can quote me on that. This record doesn’t get enough love – when I was first getting into this band, I almost skipped it entirely due to negative comments from Mayo Thompson and a general lack of online appreciation. But every tune on here has something to offer, and some of them are just FANTASTIC! Catchy and enthusiastic openers “The Long Walk Home” and “Use Of A Dog” are up there with the all time great Ubu tracks. The playing on this record floors me – it’s so neurotic and jumpy and jazzy and tight and weird. There are a couple “experiments” on here, but they’re far more engaging and rooted than the worst of the previous two albums. And there’s also the 7 minute percussion-driven “A Day Such As This,” the longest track in the catalog so far. It amazingly keeps up the tension and my interest throughout it’s running time – and it has a haunting middle section in between its lengthy hypnotic verses. I highly recommend this one to casual Ubu fans – I think it’s the best place to go after “Dub Housing,” as far as the pre-breakup band is concerned.

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TERMINAL TOWER  (COMPILATION)  (1985)

A-

This was a compilation released after the band’s original break-up. It includes an early pre-Modern Dance EP (“Datapanick in The Year Zero”) and some other later singles. Though it’s a comp, this is clearly one of the prize Ubu platters – nearly every track on here kicks some sort of ass. And there’s a lot of variety and some great hooks and Thomas isn’t quite as willfully odd as he’d later become. So in some ways, this is the perfect introduction to the band. The opening two longer tracks present the original band as a much more generically post-punky outfit – they’re almost like early goth rock tracks. “Heart of Darkness” is all tension/release and atmosphere, with minimal vocal hookery and not a lot of memorability factor. But it’s a pretty scary and riveting listen while it’s playing. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” employs a repetitive Sabbath-like riff against a stripped down post-punk backdrop for over 6 minutes. It’s got a dark threatening quality that wouldn’t show up on much Ubu until the final run of albums, and Thomas vocally seems more Ian Curtis than freak-show David Byrne or Beefheart. Then comes a GREAT run of punk-pop songs. There’s “Final Solution,” which is as good and rocking and catchy as anything on the debut. “Cloud 149” is a fantastic weirdo-garage rocker (and for any fans of The Fiery Furnaces, THAT band owes a shitload to this track). “Untitled” is an early version of the title track from “The Modern Dance” – they’d eventually improve the tune (this one has no “Madre Madre”s!), but this is a fascinating listen nonetheless. “My Dark Ages” has a muted verse/big chorus structure – the big chorus part RULES with it’s great “I don’t get around” hook. The acoustic guitar/synth driven “Heaven” is easily the poppiest thing on any of the early records – very “Faust”ian too. The remainder of the tracks aren’t quite as good (I believe they’re all Mayo Thompson-era tunes) – there’s a nice live version of “Humor Me” and closer “Lonesome Cowboy Dave” is endearingly nuts! As a whole, this is a must listen for fans of the band and an essential part of their catalog.

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THE SOUND OF THE SAND & OTHER SONGS OF THE PEDESTRIANS                          (DAVID THOMAS SOLO)  (1981)

B+

And thus begins a five album solo run for Ubu leader David Thomas, during which most of his previous band’s garagey punk roots would be completely disregarded in favor of odder, more abstract, and often jazzier art rock pastures. The seeds for this new sound had been sewn in the last Pere Ubu record (‘Song of the Bailing Man”), and now they were to come to fruition. This first album (credited to David Thomas and The Pedestrians) has listed in its liner notes a very exciting large group of musicians, including sax and clarinet player and oft-Tom Waits collaborator (and ex-Tin Huey member) Ralph Carney. There’s also Henry Cow’s great drummer Chris Cutler, a key figure in the R.I.O. movement. But the most exciting name, and the most intoxicating presence on this record, simply HAS to be Richard Thompson. Yes, Richard Thompson – one of the best and most distinct guitar players in pop history. Pairing Thomas up with all these idiosyncratic voices opens up the sound in so many wonderful directions, but the Thompson/Thomas connection floats my boat in a particularly awesome manner. It’s great hearing Richard in this kind of totally uncommercial environment (which allows the more fractured and nutty aspects of his playing to come to the fore). This is a hard record to describe, but it’s not too far off from the jazzy bouncy spastic percussion heavy vibe of “Bailing Man.” The record opens with the insane pumping Richard Thompson-lathered “The Birds Are Good Ideas.” David is very enviromentally obsessed on most of these solo records. “Tiki Tiki” is another Richard dominated piece of herky jerky insanity with a crazy falsetto David vocal. “The Crickets In The Flats” is a 5 minute propulsive percussion experiment. The title track is a pretty normal pop song that sounds like a Richard Thompson solo track from the 80s. The POPPIEST tune, though, is definitely “Happy To See You,” with it’s haunting voodoo riff contrasting with a loopy upbeat verse melody. It’s a hypnotic track, and one of the most memorable on here. It’s pop in a good way, an Ubu-esque avant way, unlike some of the later and more boring “pop” records to come out of Thomas’ brain. “Big Dreams” is the most distilled and brief blast of the hybrid Richard Thompson-Pere Ubu sound at play on here. “Confuse Did” may be my favorite number on this crazy record – that falsetto chorus hook is so insane and delectable! The big flaw here is the annoying 5 minute self-consciously deconstructed version of “Sloop John B.” Just not a very good idea, and not an entertaining track. Though I do appreciate how an approachable horn melody starts to crop up towards the end of “Sloop,” which is then revealed to be the main hook of the relatively straightforward ska-tinged album closer “Man’s Best Friend.” This is a totally worthwhile record, and a must hear for fans of Thompson or Ubu, But their next collaboration would be even BETTER.

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VARIATIONS ON A THEME      (DAVID THOMAS SOLO) (1983)

A

YES! Another Richard Thompson dominated album, but this one fixes many of my minor issues with the previous one. First of all, it’s much more normal (by David Thomas’ completely alien standards). I’m not listening to Pere Ubu records for normalcy, but there are times when David just takes his avant ideas too far (as we remember from some of the “New Picnic Time” and “Art Of Walking” tracks). THIS time, things are certainly still weird, but the compositions are tighter and the energy sustained and there are very few moments of artsy wankery. The lineup is similar to the previous record, though Henry Cow’s bassoon player Lindsay Cooper has been added to the fold (she would play a gigantic part on the next record). This is a great weirdo pop record. And Richard KILLS all over this thing. Basically every track works, though I’ll single out some of the total winners. “Bird Town” is an absolutely hilarious and catchy (and almost B-52s-esque) tune, with a jazzy thrust and lots of awesome Richard lines. Is that a whiff of Bootsy Collins I smell with those “What’s The Name Of This Town,” querries, David? “The Egg & I” is difficult to describe – it’s another nutty enchanting fractured Beefheartian slice of utter deranged oddness – and it’s so great! Once again, Richard Thompson makes the song a total treat. There are some very Les Claypool-esque moments on that song – from the little I know about Primus, I have to imagine that band loved this shit. “Hurry Back” is the most conventional song in the Ubu catalog thus far – it’s got a pop melody, a verse-chorus structure, and sounds a bit like Loaded-era Velvet Underground. It’s really good and passionate too! The album closes with perhaps its best track – “Semaphores.” That number has a very memorable Talking Heads-esque chorus hook, and with it’s awesome horn arrangements and choppy Richard guitar parts, it’s like R,I.O. mixed with new wave mixed with Ubu-music. Obviously, a unique track. There a couple weaker moments here – “The Rain” is essentially a multi-tracked drum solo with some goofy classical reed sections – it’s nice and neat, but my mind ain’t blown listening to it. And “Song Of Hoe” has one of the most hilarious David performances on record (dig that Santa Claus laugh), and the idea is great (a song from the perspective of a garden hoe — “woe to the weeds”)…but it’s pretty thin musically (thought the “riff” is quite awesome and sounds unsurprisingly like Fairport Convention). This is one of the best records in the entire Ubu-family catalog.

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MORE PLACES FOREVER       (DAVID THOMAS SOLO)  (1985)

B

No more Richard Thompson! I guess I couldn’t expect that to last forever. Here, David strips things WAY the fuck down. This is only Lindsay Cooper on bassoon, Chris Cutler on percussion, and Ubu-ite Tony Maimone on bass. And of course, David on vocals. So no guitars for miles, and that definitely does something drastic to the sound and vibe. This album is much farther away from “rock” than David has ever allowed himself to stray, and while Lindsay does a fabulous job providing all the harmonic material with her woodwinds, I can’t say this is AS appealing an arrangement concept for me. But it’s still a new sound (you just can’t expect a guy like David Thomas to sit still for long), and the rhythm section jazzily rocks with the same ferocity as ever before. Things are even WEIRDER now, if that can be believed – bassoons as lead instruments coupled with David Thomas’ incessant yelping do not make for a particularly…normal record. The Cooper-Cutler presence obviously puts this even further in the R.I.O. category than before. Anyway…the whole thing seems slighter than the previous two, as if tossed off. And save for a couple incredible tracks, the material isn’t quite up to the standards set by the first two solo albums. But it’s still a very interesting listen, and well worth your time. I’m not crazy about the first three songs, particularly “Whale Head King,” which is a dull 5 minute expansion of the “Happy To See You” voodoo riff, But then, smack dab in the middle of the brief record (36 minutes), come easily the two strongest tracks. “Song Of The Bailing Man” (which I’m guessing was written during the sessions for that album) is a mesmerizing proggy atmospheric story song about a guy trying to bail out the entire ocean with his bucket. The arrangement is flawless, especially considering the tiny lineup,. Then there’s my favorite – the exuberent “Big Breezy Day” – one of my favorite Thomas tracks, period. “The Farmer’s Wife” has some awesome grooves and a sleazy dance section – the free jazzy atmospheric part in the middle bores me though. “New Broom” is like a sister song to “Song Of Hoe,” with it’s repetitive lumbering bass melody. It’s a purposely lazy and sluggish song, and it’s got some great playing by Cutler. The rest of the tracks are OK, but nothing quite jumps out – it’s more of a relaxed affair than usual. I wouldn’t make it your first listen when it comes to this run of solo records – but certainly don’t be afraid of it either – it’s quite a nice album.

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MONSTER WALKS THE WINTER LAKE       (DAVID THOMAS SOLO)  (1986)

D

Very early in this brief album, David Thomas apologizes for feeling “abstract tonight.” Apology not accepted, David. This is easily the least substantial piece of music yet to come out of Thomas’ warped mind – it sounds more like the ramblings of an amateur poet at an open mic or cabaret, backed by a noodly little free jazz ensemble. It’s mostly repetitive, improvised-sounding nonsense. It’s the kind of thing that might have been fun to see live – a piece of performance art or theater – but to my ears it sounds DOA as an actual recording. As I’ve said before, I didn’t come to Pere Ubu expecting normal pop music. But up to this point, David has never released an out-and-out boring album, or an album with no ties whatsoever to rock and roll or melody or song-craft. This is the first album of his that’s just does nothing for me in any way. “My Town” is terrible, and “Bicycle” an atmospheric mock-poetic bore. The 11 minute title track is certainly hypnotic, with the first 6 minutes dominated by a simple repeated 6 note figure and Thomas’ cryptic narration. It’s an…interesting piece. But not necessarily a good one. I just don’t know – it doesn’t move me at all. “Monster Magee King Of The Sea” is a weird warped accordion driven sea chanty, and it’s moderately enjoyable.  “What Happened To Me” is the only thing approaching a regular song – it’s quite similar to the tracks from the previous record. It’s repeated again at the end of the album, which brings up the only real argument I can make in this record’s favor: it feels a lot like a song cycle, a conceptual piece meant to be taken in as a whole. That’s unique for Thomas, as even his best albums tend to sound fractured, comprised of a buncha miniatures that don’t add up to anything like a real album statement. The song cycle theory is certainly lent credence by the repeat use of the “monster” character, who may actually be a Thomas alter-ego (I’ve read that this is his most “personal” album). Ultimately, this is far too minimalist and spoken-wordy for my tastes – spoken poetry against undeveloped background noises and overly simple melodic ideas. A wasted effort, and one of very few early Thomas experiments that just simply falls flat.

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BLAME THE MESSENGER           (DAVID THOMAS SOLO)  (1987)

A-

Hello, David, have you met my friend Pere Ubu? Pere, this is David. David, this is Pere. Oh wait – you guys already know each other? Oh cool, I feel like a heel. What’s that you say David? Oh, no, you don’t have to thank ME for re-introducing you. What’s that Pere? You think David’s a gaylord for releasing those guitar-less artsy fartsy albums? Hey wait – where are you guys going? The studio? To make another David Thomas solo record? Cool! I bet it’ll sound a lot like early Pere Ubu, because I’m sure you’re going to bring back garage-y drums and cool Beefheart-y guitar riffs and all that stuff that actually made people fans of David to begin with.
AND SO MONTHS GO BY…..
Hey David, how’s Pere doing? Good, good. So I got the new solo record! It’s awesome!  I think it’s probably the best classic sounding Ubu record since the debut, and I wonder why you didn’t just call it an Ubu record! Don’t you realize it’s now going to get lost to history while some of the considerably shittier later albums you haven’t made yet will be listened to by people seeking out your band? I’m very glad you found this fella Jim Jones to play guitar all over your record – just don’t make me drink the kool-aid! Just joking with you, what’s in a name right? And you’ve got good ol’ Allen Ravenstine back in action to lather up everything with his oddball synth gurgles! Anyway, every song on the new album kicks ass except for the boring low-piano-note experiment “Havin’ Time,” which you may as well have called “Wastin’ Time.” Ha ha ha. At least it’ll make people remember that even the best early Ubu albums had some stupid experimental filler on them. Good news about the rest though, particularly the totally incredible voodoo Beefheart blues riff-fest “King Knut!” And the fantastic extended dinosaur referencing closer “The Velikovksy 2-Step,” which sounds like a great “Song For The Bailing Man” track! I’m also very happy about the goofy sing-along “Friends Of Stone,” and the tense, propulsive and expressionistic  “A Fact About Trains.” I’m not sure why you chose “My Town,” as an opener – first of all, your previous album (which I thought sucked by the way) had a totally different song called “My Town” on it. And THIS “My Town” sounds nothing like the rest of this album, with it’s latin acoustic accordion vibe. Still, a good song!!! I like the album a lot, David. A LOT. It’s better than anything else you’ll EVER release. EVER. So have a great rest of your career, you piece of shit, I’m gonna go listen to this album again.

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THE TENEMENT YEAR (1988)

B+

Ah yes, the Pere Ubu moniker is back in action. Original Ubu drummer Scott Krauss was added to the exact same “Blame The Messenger” line-up, and I guess he pushed things over the edge. There was no hiding behind David Thomas’ name anymore – this was PERE UBU. So now we have TWO drummers, one of which is STILL Chris Cutler. But Cutler must feel like his days were numbered here, as the band is getting progressively less R.I.O. art rocky and more alternative poppy. When I first heard this album, I thought: “Wait, THIS isn’t the Ubu pop sell-out album? That happens next?” Because this is certainly the most straight-forward album they’d ever released up to this point, with mostly normal song structures, some simple rockin’ riffs, and a handful of obvious chorus hooks. The synth gurgling is still there, and Thomas still sounds a bit nutty (though a lot less so – his melody-singing bad David Byrne voice is already rearing it’s annoying head). There are some very poppy song titles like “Talk To Me,” “Say Goodbye,” and “Miss You.” It sounds to my ears like this record is hardly interested in deconstructing pop forms, and actually wishes that it were a pop album but can’t quite commit. As such, it’s sort of a transitional album – with a foot in the awesome weirdo garage punk avant-garde camp, and a foot toeing it’s way slowly into the camp of lame 90s overproduced adult alternative crap. Where everybody drinks lemonade or something. Luckily, this is STILL mostly prime grade Ubu. I’m a big supporter of the opening run of songs on here: “Something’s Gotta Give” may be the best Ubu pop song in the canon, with it’s “London Calling”-esque staccato guitar verses and it’s catchy melodic chorus. Good stuff, kids! “George Had A Hat” is a fun garage rocker with a welcomely stupid guitar riff. “Talk To Me” is an almost commercial sounding 80s pop song, but since the band hadn’t really committed to that sound yet, it plays here more as an fun anomaly. And then the pretty “Busman’s Honeymoon” sounds like a Thomas solo track, and has a lot of weird arrangement ideas and a proggy crazy middle instrumental that keep it from sounding too normal. The rest of the album is enjoyable and always well-written and performed, with interesting melodic and arrangement ideas popping up all over the place. But none of the individual tracks really HIT me –  while it’s a good album, it’s not all that memorable. The closer “We Have The Technology” would be a completely boring and normal pop song if you removed the synth noises. Which is exactly what would happen on the next run of albums, making this in many ways the last totally essential Ubu record.

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ONE MAN DRIVES WHILE THE OTHER MAN SCREAMS (Live)  (1989)

(no grade)

This is “Pere Ubu Live, Volume 2,” and it focuses on the REST of the albums from the original incarnation of the band. The sound quality is a million times better than on the previous live record, and I find the song selection far more entertaining. Those weirder post-Modern Dance records truly benefit from more ferocious live arrangements  – “Small Was Fast,” “Misery Goats,” “Birdies,” and “Ubu Dance Party” might very well usurp the recorded versions. There’s more variety and obviously the band has gotten more professional. Thomas seems more in control of his oddness. I wish they’d included some “Bailing Man” material!!

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CLOUDLAND (1989)

B-

Remember how I was taken aback by the poppy nature of the previous record? I was unclear about why THAT wasn’t considered their pop album – for it was certainly more structured and melodic than anything else in the catalog thus far.  Little I did I know that THIS piece of poop was waiting for me right around the corner. Yes –  “Cloudland” is without qualification the poppiest record the band had ever put out up to this point. Compared to what’s come before, it’s absurdly straightforward and friendly – nobody would ever imagine this was Pere Ubu. Unfortunately, it’s less a genuine pop album and more an alt-rock 90s album – it’s also too long, sounds like shit, and David Thomas doesn’t convince me for one second as a melody-singing hook-meister. When I first heard Ubu had a “pop” phase, I was expecting a refinement of their sound, a smoothing away at the edges and focus on structure and melody. But I still thought there’d be a lot of weirdness. That’s “The Tenement Year” for sure. I was NOT expecting something this lame and generic. This style is very far from interesting to me – and if “Variations On A Theme” isn’t an Ubu album, I don’t see why THIS one should be. Thomas has said that the pop albums from this era were actually their most experimental records – who would ever think that Pere Ubu could sound like a polite radio-friendly factory product? Certainly this an expectation thwarter, right? Well…nice try, Dave, but that sounds a bit like bullshit, and this album sounds like a big fat sell-out. If this were “Pet Sounds” or even “Surfin’ Safari,” I’d be taking a different perspective. I love pop. But this is just not a very classy sounding pop album. OK – heavy criticisms aside…pretty much every track on here has a well-conceived hook. They’re all performed and produced with utter professionalism. Producer Stephen Hague ruined Siouxsie And The Banshees on their “Superstition” album, but luckily he doesn’t similarly eradicate the intelligence of THIS band. I can’t imagine what Chris Cutler thought about this material, but this is still the line-up from the previous record – and they still manage to hit hard at some points. And the latter half of the album allows some old-school weirdness to shine through. As far as the dorky pop songs, “Race To The Sun” and “Love Love Love” are the standpoints. And for the slightly weirder songs, “Fire” and “The Waltz” take the cake. “Fire” is the probably the best track on here. Nearly every tune is upbeat and optimistic sounding – almost like they wanted to make a party album or something! There are some duffers (“Nevada!” is another “Sloop John B” quoting dud, and the single “Waiting For Mary” just strikes me as completely dull and obvious). Nothing really sticks. But some of the little hooky moments and sing-songy choruses grew on me a bit, and I’m comfortable calling this an acceptable album. My opinion of this one grew even more after I heard the following two pop turds. But this is still hardly essential listening, and really only worth hearing from a historical standpoint.

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WORLDS IN COLLISION (1991)

C

I didn’t realize it at first – but there was definitely a Pixies vibe running through the previous album. The softer and lamer side of Pixies, for sure. But the surfy pop melodies and guitar tones, the conventional song-writing lightly greased with avant-garde and noise rock, not to mention an overweight eccentric shouting front-man…these elements do invite comparisons to mid-period Pixies. Therefore, one would expect even more Pixies-ness based on the addition of Pixies producer Gil Norton to the Ubu family. Well, one would be wrong. This album, and it’s even worse follow-up, represent what HAS to be the agreed upon low-point of the Ubu catalog. It showcases a completely unattractive polishing of their rugged charming oddness, and the mediocre 90s radio music on here has very little imagination. I can’t imagine why any worshipper at the altar of early Ubu would go for this crud, as that version of the band was ALL about breaking down conventions and this record is mostly utterly conventional. But I also can’t imagine any “normal” folks digging this either – you can’t take the odd out of David Thomas’ voice, no matter how hard you try. So the album falls in some middle ground crack between crappy pop and crappy punk – an ass-crack. It stinks, I say. But not all is lost! There is a three song run in the early-middle of the record that’s as good as the “Cloudland” material. “Goodnite Irene” is the best track, with a semi-catchy chorus that doesn’t make me cringe. “Mirror Man” is fun and strange, with a really awesome theatrical Thomas vocal performance. Finally, “Cry Cry Cry” is a mid-tempo soulful number with a cute harmonized chorus and an early 60s pop vibe. The album closes with a decent track – “Winter in The Firelands” – much darker than the rest of the record. I can’t say much in favor of that rest of the record. Opener “Oh Catherine” is a professional and very derivative jangle pop song that does absolutely nothing for me. “I Hear They Smoke The Barbecue” sounds like bad solo David Byrne – annoying lyrics, annoying delivery, bad synth choices, and a stupid melody. The title track is the last number worth discussing (there are a handful of other totally forgettable and mediocre tracks). I kid you not here people – it sounds EXACTLY like Oingo Boingo. I’m not sure if that was intentional (I assume it wasn’t) – but it sounds like a direct tribute to Elfman’s band. Anyway, that’s the kind assessment – it also sounds like something off a bad 80s movie soundtrack. I can’t fucking stand it. The groovy Halloweeny dance chorus is just atrocious. Vomit inducing stuff there. Nothing else on the album stoops that low – but nothing aims very high either. And most of it fails even at achieving some sort of enjoyable and casual poppy slightness. It’s just simply not very good!

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STORY OF MY LIFE (1993)

D+

Captain Beefheart had a weak pop period too, so I guess I shouldn’t be too mean to David Thomas. But this record BLOWS. When I first heard it, I nearly gave up on the band’s later career (which would have been a shame, because things get way better right around the corner). It gets my vote for the worst Pere Ubu album in the whole big bunch. And before I get into detail, I urge my dear reader to look up the album covers for this and the last couple records. Done? Are you as confused as I am? How could they be so terrible looking and cheap and amateurish? Weren’t these the band’s semi-major label high-profile pop albums? Those covers are like the results of a soccer mom’s first day with ClarisWorks. OK – back to this bad album, the third and final piece of the mysterious Ubu pop trilogy puzzle. By this point the band was a foursome, with a guy named Al Clay in the producer’s chair. Mr. Clay, I’m sorry to say, but this record makes me say, “Hey!” As in, “Hey! This is unacceptable!” And it sounds like garbage – with overly digital and tinny mid-90s production and hideous limp drum sounds. There are some absolutely terrible tracks – like the nearly 5 minute “blues” rocker “Come Home,” which is consistently ugly and boring and has nary an interesting idea in it’s entire five minute frame. The title track is quite possibly the most annoying recording I’ve ever heard. WHAT was the band thinking by recording a song like that? That bass line, that stupid comedic vocal delivery, that obnoxious propulsive groove in the chorus…miserable choices abound on that song. The computerized delayed vocal effect on the song’s choruses makes me want to slaughter someone associated with this record. I can’t remember a note of most of the other tracks, but there are some less awful tunes (“Louisiana Train Wreak,” “Honey Moon”). The only actually ENJOYABLE number is “Fedora Satellite II,” which is also one of the best songs of this poopy pop trilogy. The album opens promisingly, with just Thomas and his melodeon singing “Wasted,” a cabaret song with a simple sing-songy hook (“Throwing time away…”).  But immediately after Thomas says “ROCK” and the alt-rock instrumental chimes in, the track mutates into dated 90s crud. It returns to the stripped down arrangement again at the end, but not for long – and then of course we have to endure the next 5 minutes during which “Come Home” takes the stage. The bluesy Americana hang-ups of this album point the way towards some of the final Ubu albums, and the highlighting of that element of the sound might have been what led esteemed rock critic Greil Marcus to proclaim: “Story Of My Life is the most stirring music I’ve heard this year…I’m nowhere near the end of this record; I want to keep it around, bang it up against Muddy Waters, Charlie Rich, Music From Big Pink, Pere Ubu’s own 1978 Dub Housing, come back in six months, write about it some more.” To which I repond: “Greil, shut the fuck up and tell me another useless anecdote about day 145 of the Basement Tapes.” Don’t listen to this album unless you want to be to forced to question the taste and skill of this once brilliant band.

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RAY GUN SUITCASE (1995)

B

Phew! Back to normal, which of course for Ubu means abstraction and experimentation and moodiness and ABNORMALITY. I can’t tell you how happy I am they’ve finally left the lame-ass pop thing behind and jumped head first into a new darker and more sprawling version of their early aesthetic. The last four Ubu records seem more comfortable and assured than anything these guys released in the early 90s. But they’re hardly classic albums – the band starts to remind me a LOT of late-period The Fall. The sounds are cool, there are some exciting moments and the occasional great track – all driven by a increasingly insular front-man – but nothing really jumps out as essential. The work is really best suited for big fans of the original records. The band also embraces it’s Americanism to a much greater degree than ever before (what with all those Euro-art rockers showing up on the earlier platters), and Thomas dives even further in Beefheart/Tom Waits territory. THIS album, the first of the (for now) final wave, starts off INCREDIBLY, and I was totally excited for what seemed like a super successful late-period go-to album along the lines of The Fall’s “Country On The Click.” That would have made for some focus to this band’s erratic catalog (get “The Modern Dance” for the early stuff, and “Ray Gun” for the later stuff). The opener, “Folly of Youth,” puts its foot down immediately – we’re back to the avant garage, and we’ve grown even meaner and darker and almost goth-like in our intensity. It’s a fantastic paranoid track, tense and wiry and highly effective, one of Thomas’ all time best creations. And it’s got a great vocal performance to boot! Next up is another huge winner – “Electricity” – which mixes a Stooges-like verse riff and creepy spoken word vocals with a melodic chorus section. It’s so much better than anything this band has done in years – haunting, hard hitting, and beautiful. I adore the alien synth line that comes in for the later verses. There’s a bit of a Sonic Youth vibe to that songs too. “The Beach Boys” is a better pop song than anything on the last three records – mainly because it sounds elegant and stripped down and atmospheric, as opposed to digitally polished and radio-play-seeking. “Turquoise Fins” is another great  weirdo pop track – it just sounds like vintage Ubu. Then we run into the problem that is the rest of the album. First of all, it’s way too long. It’s got some atmospheric tracks that create interesting and scary moods but ultimately go nowhere (“Horse,” “Vaccum In My Head”). Or neat simple garage rockers that sound cool while playing, but go on too long (“Memphis” “Red Sky”). And one ugly rocker just simply sucks (“My Friend’s A Stooge For The Media Priests”). By the end, the album just comes off as messy and overly sprawling, which is a shame coming after the tight opening run. HOWEVER – there are still some fantastic songs after the opening 4. “Don’t Worry” is one of the best, with it’s creepy baritone (?) guitar riff. “Down By The River II” is a very Pixies-like closer. The title track is one of the band’s more successful experimental near-instrumentals, and builds successfully to a chugging Krautrock tribute. Many flaws aside, this is still probably the best of the four post-pop Ubu records (the next two are more consistent, but the highs aren’t as high). It’s the proper follow-up to “Tenement” – forget about the trilogy that falls between and let’s remember this band as one of the all-time most uncompromising!!

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PENNSYLVANIA (1998)

B

I welcome the return of original Ubu guitarist Tom Herman with opening mother-fucking arms. The man has brought back some gritty blues to the band. He’s grounded it again. This may just be the best overall release from late-Ubu, but it’s also the weirdest and least typical. It doesn’t have the awesome statement-y peaks of the previous record (“Folly Of Youth” and “Electricity”)…it’s more of a mood piece and even seems to be some sort of concept album. It’s also the most darkly “American” album the band ever released, and parts of it definitely invite comparisons to Tom Waits. It’s particularly unique in the catalog for the treatment of Thomas’ vocals – never before has he sounded this distant or processed or subtle. He’s almost an afterthought on a lot of these tracks, or another instrument – he rarely takes yelping center stage like in the past. This is one of the few Ubu records that I can make it straight through and sense that I’ve experienced a genuine RECORD as opposed to a bunch of disparate experiments. It has a lot of FEELING, which is not common for these guys. And it feels authentic and weathered and idiosyncratic – it’s the exact kind of record Pere Ubu should have been making in 1998, and I’m surprised it doesn’t have a higher reputation (though Greil Marcus seems to love it!!!) I prefer to think of the thing as a song cycle, and thus playing the individual song game seems less important. But there are some standouts – “SAD.TXT” is full of wonderful bluesy Zeppelin-Beefheart guitar riffs. “Highwaterville” is a brief but very pretty folk song with some gorgeous guitar work. My absolute favorite is “Fly’s Eye,” which is SO Beefheartian it’s hilarious  – but also kicks ass and has a lot of great percussion ideas. I can quite get behind the propulsive bluesy closer “Wheelhouse.” I should mention that there are some hidden tracks on here – including an EXTREMELY long Krauty jam called “My Name Is…” So yes – the band happily follows up “Ray Gun” with another classy creative bluesy weirdo platter that goes towards effectively erasing the memory of their early 90s trash. It’s not as good as their early stuff – but it’s far more interesting than most band’s early stuff. And for a band with as many crazy records as this one, that’s saying something.

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ST. ARKANSAS  (2002)

B

Another solid and very respectable late period Ubu record. This one picks up where “Pennsylvania” left off, though it’s got a darker and more unsettling tone and a less conceptual vibe. It’s great to hear the project in such good form – none of this material strikes me as particularly CLASSIC, but I could easily imagine someone calling any of the previous three records a later career peak. The best moments of this post-pop trilogy stand up to and even better some of the earlier material. Who would have thought that Thomas could bounce back so well after that 90s rut – and that he could sound so cool and punk again? Anyway, this album grew on me something fierce – it certainly sounded claustrophobic and unique upon first listening, but it took some more plays before I realized just how tight and fresh are almost all the tracks on here. The experimental factor is quite low – most of the songs are propulsive post-punk rockers. There’s not much in the way of hooks on here, but the propulsive energy and scary atmosphere fill in the pop gap. Once again, Thomas is pretty restrained – gone are the yelps of the early days, and he is allowing himself to settle into the arrangements much more now. The album opens with one of it’s highlights – the creepy near-goth “The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto,” which sounds a bit like Bauhaus (in a good way). “Slow Walking Daddy” is like Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me To The River” mutated into a strange spoken word darkly grooving soul-punker. “Phone Home Jonah” is probably the most effective pop tune the band put together since “The Tenement Year” – a real old-school sounding garage rocker. “333” makes use of some super bizarre production (everything sounds a bit off), and it’s another dark charging garage rocker – the most Fall-like track on here, especially with Thomas willfully pitchy vocals. There are some less memorable tracks (though everything on here has something to offer), but my biggest grievance comes with the extended repetitive 9 minute album closer Dark. It’s a song about driving with Thomas singing how the radio will “set you free,” though the tone isn’t free at all – it’s totally tense and off-putting. The song is basically just one bass and guitar figure repeated endlessly – and while there are some nice sounding cathartic release moments later on in the track (with big organ pads and Western-movie guitars), and the lyrical theme does invite musical repetition… it ultimately just bores me at 9 minutes. Still, it’s an interesting track before it starts to get too repetitive. In any case, it’s really more of an extended ending than a mid-album clock stopper – and the album hardly suffers too hard for it. So while this ain’t gonna replace “The Modern Dance” on my shelf anytime soon…it is indeed a strong piece of work from Thomas and the boys.
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WHY I HATE WOMEN  (2006)

C+

A disappointment, and a step down from the solid craftsmanship of the previous three.  By this point, Thomas was the only original member of the band, so I don’t see what makes this an actual Ubu record as opposed to a David Thomas one. Perhaps it’s just the style – this is still very much that dark goth-y post-punk late-Ubu thing. But there’s less energy, and less memorability, and the whole thing feels rather scrapped together. This one also run afoul by including some too long experimental drone-y tracks with barely any melodies and not a lot of musical dynamism (“Blue Velvet” and “Stolen Cadillac” are the two big offenders here, though the shorter “Synth Farm” is similarly slippery). There are some major highlights, though. Opener “Two Girls (One Bar)” uses a crazy staccato rhythm idea to neat effect. It’s the most spastic and exciting song on the entire record. “Caroleen” is a fun garage rocker with a strong vocal delivery. “Babylonian Warehouses” isn’t much more than a cool atmospheric groove, but it’s a commanding atmosphere (and what Steely Dan-esque title!) My favorite track is the 6 minute “Love Song,” a menacing melodic beast with a lot of nice dynamic changes and scary ideas. This album, by the way, was apparently modeled after something Jim Thompson might have wrote – and that last song particularly suits the evil male “killer inside me” concept (“my hands are growing tentacles”). The album concludes with one of the more straightforward and goofy Ubu tracks of late – “Texas Overture” – with it’s “Texas is the land of the free” refrain and some pretty straightforward riffy southern rock moments (played with chirpy synths on top of them of course). This album feels like a rush job to me – or like Thomas’ heart wasn’t really in it. Considering the vast catalog of great records, and also the fact that there are better late-period albums – – I wouldn’t recommend this one too highly for a casual fan.
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SURF’S UP!  (DAVID THOMAS SOLO)    (2001)

(no grade)

As you can read on this page, I’m a pretty big fan of Davey Thomas’ mid-80s solo records. After Ubu reformed, he didn’t release another album on his “own” until the mid-90s. I’m sure they contain some neat material, but I really don’t have the patience to seek out the remaining 5 or 6 solo albums he put out during the late-Ubu days. This is a man past his prime, ya know!? Not terribly so – there’s still a lot of interesting stuff on the last few Ubu records – and I bet I’d gain bits and pieces of enjoyment from these solo records. But I’ve had my fill. I thought I’d at least listen to ONE of ’em – and this one sounded like the most interesting one based on the 8 minute title track Beach Boys cover. And not just any Beach Boys cover – a SMILE song, and one of the most complex Wilson compositions on record. This was one of a series of records credited to David Thomas & Two Pale Boys – I’m not sure what the other Pale Boys albums sound like, but this one has no drumming and very little structure. It’s all cool noise making and spoken words and atmospherics – it’s all moody and strange and obtuse. There a LOT of great guitar sounds on here – I think a lot of these horn sounding tones are being made via guitars and and other sound-altering effects. As a sonic environment, this is a very unique album. As a piece of pop music and/or entertainment, it’s almost entirely lacking. There’s far too much improvy-spoken word stuff (a la “Monster Walks The Winter Lake”) for my tastes, and not enough actual energy or song-craft. There are moments that jump out as incredibly striking – like the incredible and horrifying operatic voice background noise in “Ghosts” (I’m guessing it’s being created by a guitar or synth), and the opening track “Runaway” has some simply incredible guitar effects. The opening section of “River” is one of the more beautiful (and melodic) pieces of music from Thomas in a while. “Spider In My Stew” sounds like Faust, but it’s pretty boring after a minute or so of the same repetitive guitar riff and spoken phrases (though that Faustian riff does sound bad-ass). And it’s very fun to hear the almost straight (at least melodically faithful) rendition of the Beach Boys song – though it turns into an atmospheric “jam” at the end and goes on a bit too long. The album ends with a version of Ubu’s “Come Home” that thankfully shares nothing with the horrible original except the lyrics, which are sung-spoken over a bunch of atmospheric noises and a repeated slide guitar effect. This is a fans only release for sure, but it does have some exciting moments.

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